The APA functions rather like a much more modest version of the Paris conference. Parties to the Paris Agreement send delegations, and small groups can be tasked with resolving specific issues before reporting back to the larger group for decision-making.
Among the most important items on the meeting’s agenda is the Global Stocktake to assess overall progress towards fulfilling the Paris Agreement’s goals. This stocktake will kickstart the process of five-yearly reviews to strengthen the Paris Agreement, the first of which will happen in 2023.
A new approach
The Paris Agreement sets down a new model for confronting global warming. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, which imposed emissions targets on each country in a “top-down” way, the Paris process allowed countries to pledge their own climate targets.
The five-yearly review mechanism thus aims to ensure that nations ramp up their commitments in coming years.
The question of fairness
As the Paris regime’s core review mechanism, the Global Stocktake will consider many aspects of the parties’ collective progress. While it will focus mainly on practical and scientific issues, the Paris Agreement also requires it to assess the collective progress “in the light of equity”.
In international climate negotiations, “equity” refers to an array of moral principles developed by the parties since 1992. These principles flesh out ethical priorities, such as ensuring the sustainable development of poorer countries.
They also inform burden-sharing decisions – for example, requiring countries that are more able to fight climate change, or that bear greater historical responsibility for it, to shoulder more of the burden.
As such, those five short words – “in the light of equity” – are arguably the first ever attempt to formalise the idea of countries doing their fair share when considering their contribution to the global fight against climate change.
What will the meeting achieve?
It is too early to know exactly how the APA will implement its mandate. However, in order to cover equity appropriately, the stocktake will need to include an official consideration of how well each country’s climate efforts accord with the Paris goals and principles. This means considering two key questions:
Is each country doing what it promised?
Is it promising enough?
This is not what normally happens when parties discuss ethics and fairness. Because the climate negotiations have had no principled system of moral evaluation and deliberation, countries can make implausible and inconsistent ethical claims as they defend climate targets that were actually chosen on the basis of national self-interest.
In the ideal case, the stocktake will encourage countries' delegates to talk in a reasonable and structured way about the ethical principles that inform their national climate targets. It will hopefully prompt them to be clearer about what principles they think are important, and how those principles justify their contribution.
As well as encouraging laggards to lift their game, the stocktake could clarify the application of specific equity principles. This could lead to improved overall ambition, more fairness in burden-sharing, and a greater shared belief in the regime’s legitimacy. Indeed, the process leading up to the stocktake can itself realise important procedural values, such as inclusiveness, reciprocity and deliberation.
In time, the process may prove to be an essential part of a functioning Paris regime.
What could possibly go wrong?
Opening up an official space for moral appraisals offers perils as well as promises. We must bear in mind that the Kyoto model failed precisely because it proved impossible to get consensus on questions of burden-sharing. An equity-based review might just reignite these past disagreements.
Indeed, any appeal to ethics carries some risks. Sometimes it’s better to speak of collective risk reduction rather than taking an adversarial position of preaching, lecturing or blaming others.
Despite these dangers, the Paris model desperately needs a principled mechanism for reviewing national climate targets so as to scale up the overall level of ambition to what’s needed globally.
While 2023 may seem a long way off, if the APA wants to ensure a constructive process, it will need to start laying the groundwork soon. It can start engaging states on equity issues in small meetings at the upcoming annual climate summits, starting with this year’s talks in Marrakech, or more formally at the Facilitative Dialogue scheduled for 2018.
After all, any assessment of this type does its best work long before it happens. In signalling that an ethical reckoning is on the horizon, it can encourage countries to start seriously considering whether their current commitments are fair, and what they could do better.
[This blogpost was initially published in The Conversation. It is based on a workshop presentation: Hugh Breakey. “Five Short Words and a Moral Reckoning: The Paris Regime’s COP/APA Equity Review Process,” presented at: ‘From Commitment to Implementation: Carbon Integrity post Paris?’ New Delhi, India, 14 March 2016. Scholars or practitioners who would like a copy of this conference paper, which provides more detail on the above themes, are welcome to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.]